By Chris Rodell
I have no fear of dying. I’m a reverent man, a good father, and a faithful husband. I don’t drive slow in the passing lane, send annoying UPPERCASE e-mails, or walk away snickering when the dog takes a surreptitious dump in the neighbor’s yard. I believe in a just God, one that will punish the wicked with eternal, soul-searing damnation, and reward the righteous with heavenly hot tubs full of horny, naked, harp-strumming supermodels.
So, nay, I have no fear of dying.
It’s just that I’m absolutely terrified of how I’m going to die, especially if it has to hurt. Thoughts of it consume me. And, more and more, I fear it’ll be an agonizing and humiliating death in the crushing jaws of my backyard bears. They’re out there right now. I can see their lumbering shadows stalking around in front of my daughters’ swing set. There’s a malignant patience about their gait. They’re waiting for their moment.
They’re waiting for me.
My profession has made me a connoisseur of violent death. As a young newspaper reporter, I was daily immersed in the grisly ends of strangers. I’ve seen with my own eyes the mangled bodies of gunshot victims, sidewalk suicide splatters, and hapless casualties of no-win confrontations with runaway trucks.
Their scarred corpses haunt my dreams. I wonder about the searing pain, the fateful recognition that death was imminent. And I invariably put myself in their doomed shoes, hands raised in futile defense the instant before the pin hits the shell.
Of course, that would be a tidier demise than one World War II veteran Coolidge Winesett escaped in 1999 when the aged wooden planks of his rural Virginia outhouse gave way, plunging him into a pit of filthy human revulsion.
“I survived Japanese airplanes attacking my ship at night, and spent nights in a foxhole ducking deadly sniper fire,” he recalled. “But nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to the three days and nights I spent in that outhouse pit. I’d suffered a stroke years ago and lost the use of my right leg and left arm. The only way out was 7-feet straight up. There were huge rats, black snakes and all sorts of nasty bugs biting me near to death. It was 100 degrees during the day and what little air there was was so foul, I’d gag with every breath. I was sure I was going to die. I prayed God would forgive my sins.”
For three days he floundered amidst the vile muck until a passing mail carrier heard his feeble cries, dove into the pit and heaved him to safety, and if that heroic act doesn’t make my squeamishness about giving a dying man mouth-to-mouth seem petty by comparison, then I don’t know what does.
Of course, I haven’t set foot in an outhouse ever since. Even before hearing his story, I’d always been an enthusiastic advocate of peeing outdoors, especially late at night after returning from my neighborhood tavern. In that condition, it’s likely my unstable condition would lead to urinating on the floor, in the closet or on the cat, eventualities that would all lead to waking and angering my darling wife, not to mention the stupid cat.
So for years I’ve been joyfully peeing off back porches and in alleys and parking lots until this spring, when we found what, for me, is pee nirvana. My wife and our two kids moved into a rustic spot with two spacious acres in the woods above Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The idyllic acreage has a freshwater trout stream with a picturesque 10-foot waterfall. I stand on a rock above the stream, shove my trousers down past my knees and bask in nature’s grandeur as it basks in mine. The perch is right beside a sprightly little patch of wildflowers free for me to pluck and thoughtfully deposit on the kitchen table to brighten the breakfast.
The split-level home has two fireplaces, a cathedral ceiling and a refrigerator beer tap system that means we’re already prepared for any Y3K upheavals. The best part is a spacious deck overlooking the whole sylvan splendor.
It was from there that we first first saw the bears.
There were four of them. My wife and I had been enjoying some Cabernet and reveling in our happy new home when we heard a loud clinking sound as if a strong wind had suddenly gust. But there was no wind. The leaves were still. Yet the bird feeder I’d rigged with a pulley system to a sycamore branch 20 feet in the air was crazily clanging like wave-rattled guy wires on a metal mast. She ran for the flashlight.
There in the tree, eye-level just 15 feet away, was a 200-pound black bear intent on gobbling the bird seed. With her were three tiny cubs moving fluidly among the branches like Mother Nature’s Christmas ornaments.
I never spied anything so unnerving. Of course, I knew there were bears in the area. I’d stepped in a berry-seeded pile of bear scat in my backyard, thus forever rendering moot the rhetorical question about a bear shitting in the woods. Unlike humans, bears apparently have no dainty pretensions about where they defecate. They could be browsing in a bridal salon and if nature calls, etiquette be damned, they’re going to answer.
Seeing bear poop never bothered me because, despite what I’ve read and heard, I always figured I could escape an encounter with the beast. I’m in decent shape and, sufficiently motivated, I always figured I could flee, another potentially fatal miscalculation. I’ve since learned black bears can run about 35 mph for nearly 500 yards. I’m fairly confident with an angry black bear on my tail I can exceed, oh, about 37 mph. The problem is I can only maintain that burst for about 25 yards before needing, depending on my condition, liquid refreshment or a quick nap.
Another problem: Every escape route still involves, yep, climbing a tree. Despite what I’ve heard and now seen with my own eyes, my instinct will still be to climb the nearest tree, thus guaranteeing my final thoughts before I black out from a combination of catastrophic blood loss and blazing agony will be, “Damn, my high school algebra teacher was right after all: I am an idiot.”
Over the next month, different bears -- as many as six -- came around even though I’d stopped leaving bird seed in the feeder and became fastidious about ensuring no food scraps were ever left behind on the porch.
And I began to study the habits of Ursus Americanus, Pennsylvania’s regal black bear. It is estimated more than 15,000 of them live with me here in the Keystone state. In 2006, licensed hunters took 4,164 of them, including a 733-pounder just 30 miles from my Laurel Highlands home.
They are most active from dusk to dawn, but can be on the move at any time. They are rapacious omnivores, eating berries, corn, acorns, grass, honey and insects, and they’re enthusiastic eaters of injured game. They actively feed for 20 hours a day, consuming about 20,000 calories, or roughly the caloric content of my torso slathered in steak sauce.
Besides their staples, I began to discover they supplement their natural diets with hikers, campers and the occasional adventurous drunk, the latter being a 23-year old Serb, Branko Jovanovic, who was found dead and half-eaten in the bear cage of Belgrade Zoo in August during -- surprise, surprise -- an annual beer festival.
Jovanovic was naked, his clothes lying neatly folded and intact inside the cage. Two adult bears, Masha and Misha, had dragged the body to their feeding corner and reacted angrily when keepers tried to recover it.
“There's a good chance he was drunk or drugged. Only an idiot would jump into the bear cage,” zoo director Vuk Bojovic told reporters.
All the news reports conveyed a pejorative tone I found offensive. They seemed to disparage beer drinkers and hint that just by dint of being drunk, naked and in a cage of hungry bears, the man deserved to die.
Of course, I shared every bear sighting with my buddies at the small corner tavern where we go to talk sports, politics and how things would be different if we all went to a bar where women went, too.
Uniformly, the advice I got from the bar stool savants could be boiled down to one course of action: Kill! Kill! Kill! This is western Pennsylvania, setting for the epochal movie, “The Deer Hunter.” It’s where fathers dress sons in camo and instruct them on the finer points of gutting a 12-point buck so it won’t scratch the pickup’s hood. This puts me at odds with a defining characteristic of most of my friends. My father raised me to dress in Munsingwear and cheat at golf. The difference is glaring whenever wildlife management becomes a tavern topic.
“You need to kill those sons of bitches,” whispered one. “You have a right to protect your family. But you’ll need the right weapon. One clean shot through the heart. You don’t want it to suffer. You just want it to die.”
It was like getting advice from a Chuck Norris movie. One offered to bring the weapons. Another volunteered beer. It soon started to sound like a Pittsburgh Steelers tailgate party where instead of the five-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers figuratively killing the Bears, it would be a group of paunchy middle-aged men really killing the bears.
Certainly not, I said. I’m a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and I truly love animals. Rather than kill any varmint, my first instinct would be to invite it up onto the porch to share a bourbon and a fine cigar and discuss how we can live in harmony.
It seems doable because bears are uniformly portrayed as lovable scamps in the world of animation I’m exposed to as the father of two young girls. From Baloo, the raffish bear in “The Jungle Book,” to Winnie the Pooh, bears don’t kill, they cuddle. Maybe that’s why my oldest daughter quickly overcame her initial creeps of our evening visitors and jolted me with a question that shows our PETA-friendly attitudes have taken a bit too firm a hold.
“Daddy, do you think the bear would let me pet him if I give him a marshmallow?”
It was jarring enough to make me at least consider counter-balancing her Disneyfied view of man-eating bears by showing her the grimly compelling “Grizzly Man,” the true 2005 story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who loved Alaskan bears and was convinced they loved him -- right up to the instant they turned him from friend to food. But I decided against this tactic after I remembered by the end of the movie, I found myself rooting for the bears to devour the obnoxious narcissist.
So here I sit, trapped in the cerebral twilight between reason and fear. I know the bears can kill. I know they will be a part of my daily landscape for as long as we live in this rustic wonderland. I don’t want them to go. And I don’t want them to kill me or my loved ones.
I optimistically imagine we’ll learn to coexist. We will respect each other and I will overcome my fear that the bears will kill me one night when I come home from the local tavern, drunkenly convinced I’ve won another round of arguments with the two-legged killers who’d sanction the systematic destruction of these magnificent beasts.
At least I hope that’s how it’ll end up.
Because my fear is not of dying. My fear is that I’ll be more defenseless in death than even at the moment of my untimely end. Worst case scenario is a reputation I’ve spent a lifetime constructing will be demolished by the potential circumstances of my bloody demise.
Leering news reporters will descend on the places where people know me best. They’ll ask, pray tell, what a grown man could possibly be doing wandering around at midnight in bear-infested woods, pants around his ankles, holding a bouquet of wildflowers like he was on some squalid sort of date?
“I don’t want to know the answer to that,” one will say. “I just know he was a man who always said he really, really loved animals.”